Pinckney remembered by York, Chester, Lancaster colleagues as ‘calming presence’

Clementa Pinckney
Clementa Pinckney TNS

State Rep. Gary Simrill was already in office in 1995 when Clementa Pinckney was working on the House floor as a page. Within a year, Pinckney, then 23, joined Simrill in the chamber as the youngest black person ever elected to the General Assembly.

“I was elected at 25,” said Simrill, R-Rock Hill, “so I thought I was young.”

That early relationship continued across the years, even after Pinckney, D-Ridgeland, left the House for the Senate in 2000.

“Pages have to call us ‘Representative,’ ” Simrill said, “So whenever I saw him in the garage, he would say, ‘Hello, Rep. Simrill,’ and I’d say, ‘Hello, Sen. Pinckney.’ That was part of the camaraderie we had.”

Pinckney, senior pastor of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and eight of his parishioners were shot and killed as they conducted a Bible study class Wednesday at the church.

Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster, whose district also includes Fort Mill, also has a personal connection to the late senator – Gregory’s mother lives in Ridgeland and was Pinckney’s constituent.

“He lived a mile or so from my mother’s house,” Gregory said. “She lives in a little hamlet called Grahamville, and whenever I saw him we would talk about Grahamville. It’s a small state, so when you know these places and have these family ties, it generates ties between us in the Senate.”

Pinckney, he said, “will really be missed in the Senate.”

Sen. Creighton Coleman, D-Winnsboro, whose district includes Chester County and parts of southern and western York County, sat just a few seats down from Pinckney in the Senate chamber. Like many who knew him, he recalls Pinckney for his booming preacher’s voice and the effect it had in Senate debates.

“He was a big advocate for the Jasper port,” Coleman said. “This past session, we co-sponsored two or three different bills. One was to give a larger tax credit to establish solar farms on greenfields over old landfills.”

Pinckney also became an advocate for the recently passed police body camera law, and he gave an impassioned speech in the Senate after the shooting of unarmed Walter Scott by a North Charleston police officer earlier this year.

“He was a calming presence,” Gregory said. “He’ll really be missed by everybody.”

On Thursday, when the Senate reconvened for the third day of a special session to finish the state’s budget, senators started with prayer and a Scripture reading, then watched video of Pinckney’s Walter Scott speech.

“He was not just a good senator, but a good man,” said Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill. “He was certainly not afraid to speak out, but he was always willing to listen. ... When he spoke, people listened. He was not constantly speaking, but you listen more to somebody when they don’t always talk.”

Gregory called Pinckney “one of the most humble people who ever served with me in the Senate.”

“Serving here can make some people cynical,” he said, “but he was always an optimist. I don’t remember him ever saying anything negative.”

Pinckney leaves behind a wife and two daughters, to whom many extended their condolences Thursday.

“The man I knew was very polite ... someone who cared deeply about his constituents,” Simrill said. “My heart aches and my soul grieves for his family and his parishioners.”

While mass shootings have happened before across the country, Simrill said, “when you know the person, it brings it home.

“That someone could be so evil as to do this ... it makes it personal.”

Bristow Marchant •  803-329-4062